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Post World War Two Survey: Transportation

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In 1945, the western world was emerging from a long, dark tunnel of economic depression and world-wide war. In the United States, the light at the end of that tunnel illuminated the deficiencies and shortages left after years focused solely on survival. Thus, with the conclusion of war, the country rushed to satisfy the needs and wants of a population overwhelmed and exhilarated by returning servicemen and a newly invigorated economy.

The post-war years saw common citizens experience economic prosperity not previously known. This, in turn, sparked a renewal and explosive expansion of trends begun in the wealthy 1920s. Some of the most notable and important of these patterns, with respect to the built environment, were suburban expansion, transportation improvements and accessibility, and a renewed interest in Modernist ideas about architecture. These three national trends created the three local contexts of community planning, transportation, and architecture in which Charlotte's post-war Modernist architecture developed. An examination of these contexts and the dynamic changes in the booming, post-war New South City of Charlotte between 1945 and 1965 can serve as a case study of the historical climate in which post-war architecture evolved throughout North Carolina.

 

During World War II, Charlotteans, like all patriotic Americans, were ready to drive. Wrote Thomas K. MacDonald, "Everyone in the United States is waiting for the close of the war to get in a car and go some place."67 In Charlotte, the desire to move, to drive, and to transport started well before the Second World War. Native American trading routes, the Great Wagon Road, and other routes of European migration and settlement established Charlotte's location. These routes became roads. Later, the railroad was introduced, and then the paved road. Next came the highway and the airport. Highways became multi-lane and divided. The airport grew. Finally, in 1962, Interstate-85 arrived. The settlement of the city of Charlotte as it is known today, and its continued growth, are direct results of transportation.

When the United States entered the war, car production was severely curtailed as materials and energy were applied to the war effort, but after the war, production revived and car ownership skyrocketed. People were eager to get behind the wheel and go. Anywhere, everywhere, somewhere, nowhere. To the drive-in, the drive-thru, or the drive-up. Across the nation, motor vehicle registrations rose from 30 million during the war to 60 million by 1955.68 This steep national increase was mirrored in Mecklenburg County. In 1945, there were 34,000 motor vehicle registrations.69 By 1950, the number had increased to 64,411.70 The ascent leveled off in the early 1950s,71 but by 1965, the county had 140,243 registered motor vehicles.72 In twenty years, car ownership in Mecklenburg County had more than quadrupled.

Nationally, the groundwork for this post-war car boom was laid in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when vehicle registrations rose from 8,000 to 8,000,000 nationwide.73 It was during the 1920s that automobile interests became a major lobbying force at all levels of government, and traffic planners began to think "they could solve congestion problems by diverting traffic away from densely settled areas."74 The end result was the construction of miles of limited access, "by-pass" roads. In 1945, it was onto these 1920s roads, cutting through low-density areas, that the wave of new car owners sped, newly released from the material deprivation of the depression and war. Subsequently, new drivers began to demand more roads built in the previously developed, suburban, limited access pattern.

Between the two world wars, North Carolina's only four-lane highway was Charlotte's Wilkinson Boulevard. In the mid-1940s, when plans for Independence Boulevard began, Wilkinson was still the city's only major road. In 1944, the Charlotte Planning Commission asserted:

While North Carolina at one time was one of the leading States in the Nation from the standpoint of modern highways, we, like other states, have had to forego the construction and maintenance of our highways due to the war. As soon as men and material are available we must insist upon a program of street and highway development that will not only take care of traffic needs, but be so constructed as to provide every possible safety feature.75

The city's first large post-war road construction project was Independence Boulevard, heralded and decried by many. The four-lane, undivided road opened in 1949, but was not exactly a superhighway. It had at- grade intersections and some on-street parking in the early years.76 "Nonetheless, it marked the start of decades of Federal road projects that would widen city thoroughfares and provide new connections to surrounding regions."77

Other highways followed, some altogether new, some expansions of existing streets and roads. A 1946 newspaper article gave a litany of various street and highway construction, widening, and improvement projects.78 Park Road was widened in 1956 to four, undivided lanes from Tremont Avenue to the city limits, and "from the city limits to a point beyond Briar Creek it will be a dual lane affair with 22-foot paved strips on either side of a 14-foot divider."79

Wealthy individuals able to invest in land on the edge of town favored these new roads, and though there were protests, they came only from those who lived in the road's path, and generally that population was too poor to create much opposition. In the case of Independence Boulevard, for example, the route of the road was carefully charted to avoid Myers Park and the upper-income neighborhoods surrounding it by swinging to the northeast through the less-influential, middle-class Chantilly neighborhood.80

The form and design of these new roads was advocated in the 1944 Charlotte Planning Commission publication, A Pattern for Charlotte, which called for "new high-type freeways" with two lanes in either direction divided by a grassy median. It was pointed out that the current, standard roads produced "ribbons" of uncontrolled development and were unattractive, while "high-type freeways" were safer and sterilized against side developments, thus retaining original capacity and attractiveness.81 Despite their perceived, or actual, advantages, in reality, limited access was difficult to achieve and new highway projects and improvement projects continued to incorporate at-grade intersections. Still, many of these projects did yield divided lane formats, though the roadside proved to be quite vulnerable to development.

Generally, the media waxed poetic about the sprawling new highways. One 1956 Charlotte Observer article was entitled "Mecklenburg Roads Paved with Gold."82 The author of a 1950 local newspaper article, "Charlotte Grows into Gigantic 'Hub' as Highways Branch Out from City," was particularly enamored with the new streets:

These hard surfaced arteries, in a large measure, are Charlotte's lifeline. The city's pulse is counted on those traffic meters the highway officials occasionally throw across the roads. Up and down these concrete and macadam spokes flow tremendous quantities of goods which make Charlotte the commercial center of the Carolinas. Through these arteries come the millions of motorized people who find here that which they seek in exchange for their money.83

Transportation, particularly by automobile, and alleviation of the traffic congestion caused by this form of mobility, were hot topics for the city. Planning reports, road expansion, and widening projects, and stories about the need for new and larger roads fill the news papers during the post-war years. Even when a story told of problems with automobiles or traffic, reporters and editors tended to focus on the benefits of the new, car-oriented lifestyle.

A 1957 story cited earlier in this report discussed the problems the Celanese Corporation of America might have faced in its suburban location, but each potential disadvantage was swept away.84 Another article, this one from 1961, analyzed of the dwindling number of shops and shoppers in downtown Charlotte. The writer gave numerous examples of the ease of suburban shopping verses the hassles of downtown parking, businesses' independent hours of operation, difficulties faced by the pedestrian at congested intersections, and high downtown property tax rates. The reporter compares downtown to shopping centers in a way as that furthered the accepted idea that the suburban shopping center was the best way to satisfy customers' needs, while treating downtown as a place which needed to "catch up" to the car-catering world of suburbia.85

As more and more car owners whizzed away from downtown and into the "country" on Charlotte's new and expanded streets, architecture, planning, and zoning began to accommodate the vehicles. Homes began to make more space for the car. Garages became part of house plans between the wars, with Architectural Record noting in 1937 that "the garage has become a very essential part of the residence."86 This trend accelerated in the post-war years. The carport was a cheap alternative, but it was the attached garage that nearly swallowed the house, often occupying about one-third of the house's square footage by the 1960s87.

Other forms of architecture developed specifically to cater to the car and driver. Some were alterations of earlier building types while some were altogether new. Motels and motorcourts, descendants of the tourist camp, usually had parking directly in front of every unit. The term "motel" was first coined in 1926 to specifically denote an establishment where guests could park their cars just outside their rooms. In 1952, the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, Tennessee, starting what would becoming the first motel chain. In 1948, there were 26,000 motels in the United States. That number more than doubled to 60,000 by 1960, doubling again by 1972. Kenneth Jackson wrote that by 1972, "an old hotel was closing somewhere in downtown America every thirty hours. And somewhere in suburban America, a plastic and glass Shangri La was rising to take its place."88

In 1933, the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, and by 1958, there were over 4,000 in the United States. Nearly twelve years earlier the first drive-in restaurant, Royce Hailey's Pig Stand, had opened in Dallas. In the late 1920s, White Tower became the first franchise fast-food restaurant. Roughly three decades later, the first McDonald's restaurant opened in 1955. Just five years later, the nation was home to 228 McDonald's.89

In 1955, the Reverend Robert Schuller, the pastor of the Reformed Church of America, begin holding services at a drive-in theater in Garden Grove, California. With the slogan, "Worship as you are . . . in your car," his drive-in church expanded and he constructed pulpit and office space. In 1969, with 6,000 members, the church built a "Tower of Power" designed by Richard Neutra, which was often referred to as "a shopping center for Jesus Christ." This was replaced in 1980 by Philip Johnson's 125 foot high "Crystal Cathedral." This church is 415 feet long and is covered with 10,000 pieces of glass. Before each service, two 90-foot glass walls swing open for the drive-in worshipers.90

Another driver-oriented concept was the shopping center. The car-bound customer often did not live close to downtown and was no longer willing to park his or her car and walk throughout downtown to shop. This new customer wanted to park in front of his destination. Country Club Plaza (1925) in Kansas City was the first modern shopping center and included offices on the second floor. By the 1930s, the planned shopping center had become recognized as the best way to service the motorized consumer. As a result of the Depression and World War II, there were only eight shopping centers nationally in 1948. In 1949, Cameron Village opened in Raleigh as the nation's first major, large-scale, modern, planned retail center. The first enclosed mall, Southdale Shopping Center, opened in 1956 near Minneapolis.91

In the Queen City, Charlottetown Mall's opening day was October 28, 1959. One of the earliest regional malls in the nation, and the first mall in the South, it originally featured birdcages, waterfalls and pools, skylights, tropical plants, fish, and flowers. Unlike later malls, Charlottetown's second floor was reserved for offices, whose tenants included life insurance companies, an Avondale Mills office, and Harris Crane, Inc. Also on the second floor was an auditorium.

Drive-in restaurants, drive-thru banks, and drive-in movie theaters enabled patrons to be served without ever leaving their cars, while motels and shopping centers allowed customers to keep their cars close at hand. In order to keep all those cars running, gas stations proliferated. Between 1920 and 1950, service stations "became, as a group, one of the most widespread kinds of commercial buildings in the United States."92 Wrote one local newspaper reporter in 1957, "Nearly everywhere you look in Charlotte a new service station is poking up its gassy head."93

Architecture also moved to accommodate transfer trucks. With a booming economy, and better, bigger roads, trucking became an important industry across the nation, and especially in Charlotte. This spurred the construction of trucking terminals and hubs along Charlotte's major transportation corridors. A trucking terminal is a large complex with a two-story main office, usually brick, fronting the road or street. Behind the office, or in some cases, to the side of the office, is a long, one-story platform or dock. A trucking hub has the same lay out, but the dock is connected to a rail line. Charlotte's best examples are located along North Graham and North Tryon Streets. These complexes were usually executed with some degree of Modernist style.

In addition to generating new building types, transportation and the car also redefined Charlotte's zoning. Much of the 1944 and 1949 city plans focused on traffic, public parking downtown, and the creation of plenty of off-street parking at new buildings. The 1944 plan suggested creating off-street parking through underground parking garages, "open air parking buildings," or the use of the "new automatic method of parking automobiles."94 A 1964 state-wide parking study stated that "if they [cars] are to be used they must be given adequate space for movement and storage. . . the primary function of a street is to carry traffic and not for the storage of automobile," indicating that in the mid-1960s, parking was still an unresolved issue for planning and zoning officials.95

Recommended zoning in How Shall We Grow? (1955) stated that "where existing neighborhood shopping facilities are being enlarged or new development undertaken, zoning regulations can help relieve traffic congestion by including requirements for adequate off-street parking space."96 That same publication recommended that the county have zoning in order to create "business centers at proper intervals along major highways instead of allowing the growth of 'ribbon developments' along the roadside."97 Such development was deemed unsightly, unsafe, and prohibitive of future highway widenings.98 The resulting car-accommodating zoning produced vast parking lots and fostered the standardization of extremely deep setbacks for buildings. Despite their warnings against ribbon development, the new zoning policies contributed to spread of asphalt-encircled roadside commercial operations.

As certain corridors developed into major, multilane routes, planners began to be concerned about the "dumping" of cars onto a small number of major arteries. The 1949 plan pointed out:

 

Most of the streets developed . . . have been planned by private subdividers, often without any consideration whatever for the street pattern in adjoining neighborhoods. The result is evident in the maze of dead-end streets which impede traffic flow and throw an abnormal traffic load upon the few primary streets which lead into and out of the downtown district.99

 

"Road dumping," still a problem cited in the mid-1950s How Shall We Grow?, continues to cause trouble today.100

Beyond planning, architecture, and zoning, transportation even played a role in the location of a public university. In the mid-1960s, the seeds were being sown for the construction of the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina. One of the main advocates for the construction of the school noted that money could be saved by not constructing dormitories, focusing instead on creating a commuter campus.101 The site selection committee reported that the chosen location was "considered by highway engineers as one of the most accessible points in Mecklenburg."102 Their report went on to cite problems created by a limited amount of land on which to expand at other colleges, such as Wake Forest University's original campus and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, whose "founding fathers simply did not envision their phenomenal growth and the advent of students having their own cars."103 The result was a relatively low density suburban campus, located so far from the city center that it has only been within the last ten to fifteen years that retail, residential, and service development has begun to surround the school.

It was in this context of rapidly expanding and improving transportation that Charlotte's suburbs and roadside services developed. Lewis Mumford was quoted in an AIA publication of the early 1960s as saying that the city "has been disappearing before our eyes, sinking under a tidal wave of motorcars and parking lots . . . being thinned out into a suburban conglomeration," and such was the case in post-war Charlotte.104 With better roads and accessible car ownership, people were empowered to live and work away from the center of the city. Subdivisions filled with buildings to house both humans and cars, sprang up in the surrounding countryside. Offices and industrial operations built on inexpensive suburban land. Eventually, banks, shops, gas stations, restaurants, theaters, and other retail and service outlets crept out of town to provide the suburbanite with the comforts of the city center, all made possible by the highway and automobile.

The impact and evolution of transportation in Charlotte and the development of suburban living occurred in tandem with the renewal of the pre-war Modernist movements in architecture. New building types and forms were constructed largely in the suburbs and almost always accommodated the all-powerful car. The Modernist style, applied both to new and existing types, reflected the forward-looking, future-oriented goals of a nation and a New South just released from depression and war, with sights set on the moon.